The Sweet Lowdown
The Sweet Lowdown 2012
Produced by Adrian Dolan
Reviewed by Andrea Routley
If you’re a Sweet Lowdown fan, you probably fell in love with them for their rich bluegrass harmonies, formidable musicianship, and old-time folk sound. You’ll be thrilled with their third album (with 12 tracks), May.
As always, Sweet Lowdown delivers banjo and fiddle solos that impress the most experienced musicians, and for the rest of us, make us nod dumbly, follow with, “Wow. She’s good.” And just so you don’t forget that, May includes four instrumental tracks incorporating elements of bluegrass, celtic folk and even Indian-style melodies and arrangements as in “Lucknow,” a song inspired by an Indian city which banjo player Shanti Bremer visited. I’m not usually big on instrumental numbers, but I was sucked into this one instantly, with the fiddle mimicking a harmonium’s drone and the crazy Indian gypsy melodies in the banjo.
But May delivers an overall sound that I feel is signature Sweet Lowdown. With simple song forms, unadorned vocals, and three-part harmonies, May offers a kind of folk lullaby. The opening track, “The Heart Is A Hollow Thing,” evokes this lullaby quality not only musically, but lyrically, with lines like, “sticks and stones, Oh, hollow bones, bird take wing, fly high and sing.” This song is written by primary vocalist Amanda Blied (formerly of Balkan Babes), and her love of lullaby is evident in her other compositions, too, like “Hushabye,” which she calls “a lullaby for hard times,” and “What Goes Up,” a song about tobogganing on the winter solstice: “So just like Jack and Jill, we’ll go back up the hill. Just to ride right back down again like friends.” I loved this one for the Sarah Harmer-like melodies. You know the kind–the ones that feel like they’re coming to an end, but there’s still those last two words that carry the line downward in that suprising way.
I was also happy to hear Blied rip it up a little, vocally, in the cover of “Reuben’s Train.” Why “Reuben’s Train” in this album of water imagery, snow and flowers? Because every Canadian folk album must have a train song, of course!
But Blied isn’t the only songwriter with surprises. Banjo player Shanti Bremer showcases her talents in that exciting instrumental, “Lucknow,” and title track, “May.” And Bremer is a singer, too, with two of these songs on the album, “Please Take Me Home,” and “Drink It Down.” Bremer’s voice almost sounds timid on their previous album, but here she sings with steady confidence, while maintaining that angelic quality. Bremer pulls the album into the political with “Drink It Down,” a song about water rights and the impending shortage, and how she considers this in the context of the water-rich Pacific Northwest.
My favourite song on this album, though, is “Let It Go,” by fiddle player Miriam Sonstenes. It is the only song she sings, and I’m not sure why. Sonstenes voice has a clear, straight-forward quality that gives it a youthful naivety which I really loved. “Let It Go” is a song about visiting “old haunts with a dear old friend,” as Sonstenes writes in the insert. Having just recently visited my hometown for an old friend’s memorial service, I found myself connecting deeply with this piece. Sonstenes evokes a connection with place simply and poignantly with lines like “for every grain of sand there’s a tear that I have cried.” But my music-self loved the chorus best. With phrases of three measures, this asymmetrical pattern propelled the song forward in an unhurried yet exciting way. It’s a simple thing, but has a big effect. And you can always count on Sweet Lowdown to offer those simple yet stunning little juicy bits, whether in their stellar musical leads or little unexpected melodic thoughts.
You can see The Sweet Lowdown live–and pick up their new CD– at their CD Release show Thursday, Nov. 15 at the Victoria Event Centre: Doors open at 7 p.m, tickets $13.